Tier One Tantrums

Young Conservatives tout Neo-Con group's study opposing more research

Tier One Tantrums

Considering the Nov. 3 constitutional amendment election is dominated by eminent domain, the big controversy is about Prop. 4's measures to increase the number of Tier One research universities. At odds with the majority of State House Republicans, the Young Conservatives of Texas oppose it, and tout a study equating Tier One with terrible teaching.

The study is predicated around the idea that the core curriculum should include seven subjects (English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and science) and grades schools accordingly. Don't include them on mandatory course work, you must be a terrible institution.

So who is responsible for this study? Why, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Sounds nice and non-partisan, right? Guess again. ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman, and proved its Neo-Con, neo-McCarthyist credentials in 2001 when it published Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America and What can be Done About it. This paper cherrypicked quotes from academics to supposedly prove that tertiary education is over-run with America haters.

Other than a knee-jerk hatred of anything that looks like it could potentially raise taxes (ditto for their loathing of any kind of government program), the main argument from conservative groups like Empower Texans seems to be that this proposition won't cut tuition costs. Considering that tuition deregulation, which is the real reason for skyrocketing education costs, was cooked up in 2003 by conservative stalwarts like Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Reps. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, and Fred Brown, R-Bryan, the far right of the political spectrum may have little credibility on this topic.

What Prop. 4 could have started, but seemingly hasn't, is a reasoned debate about what exactly it is that Texas expects from its universities. The first issue that should probably be raised is that having a good research component has been a historical component of Western European-style universities since Bologna opened its doors in 1088. In fact, the idea that they are a mass educational establishments is an extremely new development. If we're going to start a serious conversation about what universities should be doing, it may be wise to start there.

Second, most university systems around the world are predicated on the idea that undergraduates should be specialists, not generalists: The idea that it could take a student a couple of years to select a major would, to most academics, be completely anathema and make them wonder what their class had been up to for the previous decade and a half of education. In that context, this seems like another volley in the conservative fight to create an educational system based around "classic works" (and guess who gets to define those works?).

Thirdly, it's hard to see that this proposition, for all its good intentions, will actually do anything radical. What it does is transfer the funds from the unused Higher Education Fund to a new National Research University Fund. If the state appropriates more money and if the fund performs, to quote the original House Joint Resolution 14, "an eligible state university may use distributions from the fund only for the support and maintenance of educational and general activities that promote increased research capacity at the university." It's scarcely opening the state coffers and telling deans to dive on in.

In fact, broadly trusted economic analyst Ray Perryman has already said that boosting the number of Tier One institutions will lead to jobs. If that's true, then it's got to be a better use for the $500 million currently dormant in the old fund.

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Election 2009, University of Texas, Prop 4, Young Conservatives of Texas, Tier One, American Council of Trustees and Alumni

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